The catholicity of the Church

Another passage from Archpriest George Florovsky’s work entitled “The catholicity of the Church.” There are indicators in this passage which I feel (?) belong to the few remaining “orthodox” priests left in the Anglican Communion. This sense of wholeness is how I’ve understood ‘catholic’ for several years now; in fact it is how I’m trying to hold on to the Church in the midst of the lunacy that is TEC.

The inner quality of catholicity

The catholicity of the Church is not a quantitative or a geographical conception. It does not at all depend on the world-wide dispersion of the faithful. The universality of the Church is the consequence or the manifestation, but not the cause or the foundation of its catholicity. The world-wide extension or the universality of the Church is only an outward sign, one that is not absolutely necessary. The Church was catholic even when Christian communities were but solitary rare islands in a sea of unbelief and paganism. And the Church will remain catholic even unto the end of time when the mystery of the “falling away” will be revealed, when the Church once more will dwindle to a “small flock.” “When the Son of Man cometh, shall He find faith on the earth?” (Luke 18:8). The Metropolitan Philaret expressed himself very adequately on this point: “If a city or a country falls away from the universal Church, the latter will still remain an integral, imperishable body” (Opinions and Statements of Philaret, Metropolitan of Moscow, Concerning the Orthodox Church in the East, St. Petersburg, 1886, p. 53.). Philaret uses here the word “universal” in the sense of catholicity. The conception of catholicity cannot be measured by its wide-world expansion; universality does not express it exactly. Καθολικη from Καθ σλου means, first of all, the inner wholeness and integrity of the Church’s life. We are speaking here of wholeness, not only of communion, and in any case not of a simple empirical communion. Καθ σλου is not the same as Κατα παντóς; it belongs not to the phenomenal and empirical, but to the noumenal and ontological plane; it describes the very essence, not the external manifestations. We feel this already in the pre-Christian use of these words, beginning from Socrates. If catholicity also means universality, it certainly is not an empirical universality, but an ideal one; the communion of ideas, not of facts, is what it has in view. The first Christians when using the words ‘Ekklisía Katholikí (Εκκλησια Καθολικη) never meant a world-wide Church. This word rather gave prominence to the orthodoxy of the Church, to the truth of the “Great Church,” as contrasted with the spirit of sectarian separatism and particularism; it was the idea of integrity and purity that was expressed. This has been very forcibly stated in the well known words of St. Ignatius of Antioch: “Where there is a bishop, let there be the whole multitude; just as where Jesus Christ is, there too is the Catholic Church” (Ignat Smyrn. 8:2). These words express the same idea as does the promise: “Where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of them” (Mt 18:19-20). It is this mystery of gathering together (μυστηριον της συναξεως, Mystírion tis sinákseos) that the word catholicity expresses. Later on St. Cyril of Jerusalem explained the word “catholicity” which is used in the Creed in the traditional manner of his Church. The word “Church” means the “gathering together of all in one union;” therefore it is called a “gathering” (εκκλεσια, Ekklisía). The Church is called catholic, because it spreads over all the universe and subjects the whole of the human race to righteousness, because also in the Church the dogmas are taught “fully, without any omission, catholically, and completely” (καθολικως και ανελλειπως) because, again, in the Church every kind of sin is cured and healed” (Catech. 18:23 (Migne P.G. 33 c. 1044)). Here again catholicity is understood as an inner quality. Only in the West, during the struggle against the Donatists was the word “catholica” used in the sense of “universality,” in opposition to the geographical provincialism of the Donatists (Cf. Pierre Batiffol, Le Catholicisme de St. Augustin, I. (Paris, 1920), p. 212 — “Rappelons que le nom ‘catholique’ a servi à qualifier la Grande Eglise par opposition aux hérétiques … Le nom est vraisemblablement de création populaire et apparait en Orient au second siècle. Les tractatores du 4. siècle, qui lui cherchent une signification étymologique et savante, veulent y voir l’expression soit de la perfection intégrale de la foi de l’Eglise, soit du fait que l’Eglise ne fait pas acception de personnes de rang, du culture, soit enfin et surtout de fait que l’Eglise est repandue dans le monde entire d’une extrémité à l’autre. Augustin ne veut connaître que ce dernier sens.” Cp. Also Bishop Lightfoot, in his edition of St. Ignatius, v. 2 (London, 1889), p. 319. Note ad Loc. The history of the Christian and pre-Christian use of the terms ekklisía katholikí (Εκκλησια Καθολικη) and katholikos (καθολικóς) generally in various settings deserves careful study; apparently there have been no special investigations on the subject. In Russian, reference may be made to the very valuable, though not exhaustive or faultless, article of the late Professor M. D. Muretov in the supplement to his book Ancient Jewish Prayers Ascribed to St. Peter (Sergiev Posad, 1905). See also Bishop Lightfoot, St. Ignatius, v. 2 (London, 1889), p. 310, note). Later on, in the East, the word “catholic” was understood as synonymous with “ecumenical.” But this only limited the conception, making it less vivid, because it drew attention to the outward form, not to the inner contents. Yet the Church is not catholic because of its outward extent, or, at any rate, not only because of that. The Church is catholic, not only because it is an all-embracing entity, not only because it unites all its members, all local Churches, but because it is catholic all through, in its very smallest part, in every act and event of its life. The nature of the Church is catholic; the very web of the Church’s body is catholic. The Church is catholic, because it is the one Body of Christ; it is union in Christ, oneness in the Holy Ghost-and this unity is the highest wholeness and fulness. The gauge of catholic union is that “The multitude of them that believed be of one heart and of one soul” (Act 4:32). Where this is not the case, the life of the Church is limited and restricted. The ontological blending of persons is, and must be, accomplished in oneness with the Body of Christ; they cease to be exclusive and impenetrable. The cold separation into “mine” and “thine” disappears.

The growth of the Church is in the perfecting of its inner wholeness, its inner catholicity, in the “perfection of wholeness”; “That they may be made perfect in one” (John 17:23).


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